“We’re not better than last year from a personnel standpoint.”
That was LeBron James, just over three-months ago. James went on to complain about the Cavaliers roster being “top-heavy as shit” what with the Big Three and all.
And with that, Cavaliers General Magician David Griffin went to work. He had already acquired Kyle Korver for the decomposed remains of Mo Williams and the corpse of Mike Dunleavy, which he had acquired for a trade exception that was granted after “trading” Matthew Dellavedova to Milwaukee—though they had already signed him as a free agent. With Mo gone, Griffin added Williams of both the Derrick and Deron variety, instead. A brief Andrew Bogut stint gave way to forgettable Larry Sanders stint which gave way to the signing of Edy Tavares. Dahntay Jones returned just in time to add to his jewelry collection.
The returns were not immediate. The Cavaliers went 21-18 after LeBron’s comments, with a net rating per 100 possessions of only +2.4 points. The bench unit continued to cough up huge leads and provide little production. Channing Frye looked unplayable at times. Kyle Korver got hurt. Deron Williams struggled to find his rhythm. Gone were the bench units from the previous season that could come in and dominate other teams’ second units. Instead, the Cavaliers leaned heavily on the Big Three of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love to drag them kicking and screaming to victories.
But as we’ve come to expect with this team, the playoffs started and Cavs blew up the preconceived narratives that had surrounded them. The starting unit of James, Irving, Love, J.R. Smith, and Tristan Thompson recorded a negative net rating in every game of the series. It was the much maligned bench unit surrounding a legendary performance by James that propelled the Cavaliers to a four-game sweep of the seven-seed Indiana Pacers.
Not only did the Cavaliers sweep the Pacers, but they did it with the best offensive rating of any team in the NBA playoffs. Their 115.9 rating being four points better than the second-place San Antonio Spurs’ 111.8 rating. Where did this offense come from? Well, let’s look at the offensive ratings of each player in the regular season versus the playoffs:
The Cavaliers’ bench unit was able to explode on offense, even as the starters struggled to even reach their regular season levels. While putting a bunch of shooters around LeBron is hardly a new idea, it is something I explored during the season and found that LeBron units without Love or Irving had struggled for much of the year. That all changed against the Pacers, as LeBron-led bench units demolished the Pacers.
One series does not mean every problem is fixed. The Pacers are hardly a defensive juggernaut, and no one would accuse their bench of being a threat to a team like the Cavaliers. But we’re beginning to see the team David Griffin set out to build: A team that unlocks LeBron James’ full arsenal, and surrounds him with veteran players that know where to be and how to win. The Cavaliers’ first-round offensive rating of 115.9 is nearly identical to their rating in the first round of last year’s playoffs at 115.8. While the defense needs to improve, we’re seeing a team round into form with an offensive that won a ring last year.
As David Griffin told Fear the Sword’s David Zavac, “We went all in on a team designed for the playoffs.” The early results are positive. And while it may have been true on January 24th, after the series they had, it would be hard for LeBron to stand up today and argue this team isn’t better from a personnel standpoint. And today was always the day that mattered most.